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Catching Hell


I recently watched Alex Gibney’s Catching Hell, which was excellent.   Linking together two unjust scapegoats — Buckner and Steve Bartman — it perhaps belabors the point about the fake “curses” that surround both organizations too much, but the point is a good one.   The curses serve the same function as scapegoats, inside sports and without — giving people with power a pass.    See, it’s not that the Red Sox didn’t win because their (Hall of Fame!) owner was substantially more committed to white supremacy than winning, and once they started to accumulate real talent entrusted it to sixth-rate hacks like Don Zimmer, John McNamara and Grady Little.  No, it’s because some guy wanted to finance No, No Nannette during the Harding administration.

I was interested that the movie implicitly makes a point I’d like to make more explicit about Game 6.  The general point that making Buckner the goat is irrational, since by the time of his error the Red Sox had already blown the lead and were facing a better team on the road with no good pitchers left, is by now well-known.   To me, even worse than the failure to replace Buckner with Stapleton was what Gibney correctly portrays as a panic move — replacing Schiraldi with Stanley.   Chris Jaffe’s empirical analysis found that the hapless McNamara had the worst bullpens of any modern manager with any kind of long-term career, and this is Exhibit A.  Stanley was nearly done and having a less-than-mediocre year — lefthanders hit .338 off him.   And while this tends to be forgotten, Scharaldi had pitched extremely well.    I would certainly never argue that you shouldn’t consider whether a pitcher has it on a given day, and if Schiaraldi was nibbling or giving up line drives I might get him out of there even if it meant bringing in the Steemer.   But he wasn’t.   He was throwing strikes, and none of the singles was particularly hard hit (with the Knight opposite-field jam shot that drove him from the game actually being the least authoritative.)    Classic panic overmanaging, and Stanley’s wild pitch was the most important play off the game.    To top it off, Gibney shows priceless footage of the gutless Stanley throwing Buckner under the bus after the game.    (Sox fans can help me out here, but IIRC Stanley also tried to blame Gedman for the wild pitch, although he couldn’t have caught it with a net.)

Buckner, at least, did make a mistake that made it impossible for his team to win.   Making Bartman the scapegoat is even worse, not only because he didn’t do anything wrong but because the Cubs only needed 5 outs with a three run lead even after “the Bartman play.”   The real goats were Alex Gonzalez and Dusty Baker, the latter of whom displayed the same fetishes for leaving starters in to get beat up and irrational intentional walks that Don Zimmer (there’s that name again!  Amazing how curses follow the guy around, isn’t it?)  showed in the 1989 NLCS.    The most remarkable part of the film shows the atmosphere in Wrigley, which focused solely and angrily on Bartman, leaving him in real fear for his life.   (Speaking of lazy sixth-rate hacks, he also has footage of the Kornheiser and Wilbon throwing gas on the fire the next day.)    It may be true that Cubs fans don’t care about Bartman now, but at the time they sure made him the focal point of a loss he bore no responsibility for whatsoever.    It’s a remarkable and chilling sequence.

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  • TT

    There’s also the absolutely disgusting specter of Alou claiming in the movie that he had the ball caught and will always believe he had the ball caught–when a couple of years ago he told reporters that there was no way he could have caught it and that he regretted his part in making Bartman the scapegoat.

    As for Game 6, I believe Stanley also had his wife throw Gedman under the bus after the Series. Classy.

    • dan

      I’ve always been skeptical of the claim that Alou would have caught it, but actually the documentary makes a pretty convincing case, by editing out the spectators from the video, that Alou would have caught it.

      • Timb

        Same here. I always thought Alou was choking right along with Pryor and Alex Gonzalez, but the show made me think he could have caught the ball.

        The most egregious error in that game was Dusty’s failure to visit the mound to calm his young pitcher. I watch him manage him now and am convinced that this Dusty would send someone, anyone, out to the mound to calm Johnny Cueto or Travis Wood.

        The Cubs choked and Dusty should have stopped them

      • Alou, however, was not known for his glove (as was pointed out in the documentary), so what seemed like a good opportunity may have ended up with yet a different scapegoat for that loss.

        The thing I found odd in the program was the length’s Alou went to immodestly identify with the foul ball, as if he was personally the victim, not the Cubs or Bartman.

  • Jim Lynch

    Between Baker and Felipe Alou, the Giants yo-yo’d between two managerial extremes. Baker would stick with starters long after everyone else in the stadium understood he should go to the pen, whereas Alou’s daily exercise regimen included trips to the mound– his bullpen was invariably toasted by late July. It wasn’t until ex-catcher Bruce Bochey took over that balance was restored. Granted, had the others enjoyed the all-round caliber of arms that Bochey does, things might have been a bit different. But I’ve already decided that after I buy my first major league franchise, I will favor ex-catchers when choosing managers.

    Bartman was reportedly a lifelong fan. He should have known better than to make a grab for that foul, and given Moises Alou all the room he needed in his attempt to catch that ball. Everyone in that vicinity should have. He-and-they screwed up.

    • TT

      Couldn’t disagree more. In the heat of the moment at a ballpark, with a fly ball coming right at you–fair of foul–the natural instinct is to go for it. And it’s not like Bartman was dangling over the wall to try and nab it. Jeffrey Maier he wasn’t, not even close.

      • Scott Lemieux

        And he was actually going for it less aggressively than many fans around him.

      • Jim Lynch

        “..In the heat of the moment at a ballpark, with a fly ball coming right at you–fair of foul–the natural instinct is to go for it”.

        I actually had this same argument online on the night in question. It boiled down to this: if the opposing team was in the field, sure, take a stab at catching it. As long as you don’t lean out over the wall, all’s fair. But ALWAYS back off when your team’s fielder has a shot a catching it, and be ESPECIALLY cognizant of that rule of thumb during a playoff game. Again, the people in those seats screwed-up royally.

        • Timb

          Then the people in every MLB stadium since time immemorial have

  • mark f

    I don’t know. I feel like Gibney had a good idea but just didn’t bring it all together. I thought he over-relied on a couple of things. The meta narrative, for instance. I really didn’t get anything out of the the-making-of-the-movie-you’re-watching-now angle. H also used too much footage from Douchebag At a Cubs Game or whatever that documentary was called. That guy was nowhere near Bartman. His footage of the scene on the street was about the only relevant contribution, but he was used throughout.

    Both the Buckner and Bartman stories seemed very padded out, and pursuing the history and sociology of scapegoating and sports fanhood in more detail would’ve been a better use of the two hours.

    • Scott Lemieux

      I do agree about the talk radio footage; that seemed like filler.

  • c u n d gulag

    And let’s not forget the Grandaddy of them all, poor Fred “Bonehead” Merkle – who was a pretty good player, but whose obituaries focused on his baserunning ‘mistake,’ and subsequent force-out at 2nd by Evers with a baseball of dubious origin.

    Buckner had been a pretty good hitter and 1st Baseman, and Bartman could be found tomorrow to actually be the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, serve as such for decades, and, like Merkle, all everyone will remember when they die is their “gaffs.”

    To end on a nice note – when Merkle did, eventually, go to a Giant Old Timers Day Game in 1950, he received a standing ovation from the crowd.

    It would be nice if something like that can happen for Buckner and Bartman.

    Now, if Jeffrey Maier had dropped that ball into Torasco’s mitt in ’96, now THAT would have made him a real, genuine GOAT, unlike these pretenders.
    But, thankfully for the young man, he held on, and is remembered as a Yankee hero, and not the greatest goat of all time!

    • Scott Lemieux

      As the movie said, it did happen for Buckner.

  • jeer9

    Always thought Buckner was unfairly treated and, though my memory is hazy, I seem to recall a fairly strong August and September from him that year without which they don’t get there. (The stat folks will of course correct me if I’m wrong.)I haven’t seen the film but I also believe McNamara left Buckner in there because he thought they going to clinch and wanted the veteran to experience the jubilation on-field. So much for sentiment. Just the thought of Zimmer after thirty years raises the hair on my neck. Spaceman described him as a gerbil, but I think that’s unfair to gerbils.

    • Santa Claustrophobia

      Of course, it seems nobody remembers Donnie Moore. The Angels pitcher who gave up the home run to the Red Sox that didn’t actually lead to them winning the series.

      No. In spite of the fact that the Angels still had a chance to win the next two games, it was always Moore’s fault.

      It was likely one of the leading reasons why he killed himself a few years later.

      Isn’t fandom wonderful?

      • jeer9

        I know several Angel fans/friends who remember his death with great sadness. And though the players are paid ridiculously well and frequently act like spoiled brats, the big games remain opportunities to etch one’s name in history or infamy. From what I read as well, that home run seemed to take a terrible toll on Moore.

        Since winning it all so seldom occurs, much of fandom seems to revolve around the enjoyment of watching teams you hate lose or focusing all of your disappointment on a culprit when your team fails to live up to expectations. The self-identification and vicarious pleasure invested in such a group and the loyalty which it inspires, based solely upon the contingency of one’s birthplace, often seem to border on the delusional – without displaying much that in any way compensates for all of the anger and vitriol. It would be a lot healthier if we could just take pleasure in the well-played competitive experience – but that ideal, at least with team sports, seems unlikely to ever fill the seat of a stadium or warm the heart of an empty life.

      • miel

        It probably didn’t help, but this article makes a pretty good case that giving up the home run wasn’t the main reason he killed himself:


  • sleepyirv

    As long as I live, I’ll never forget an interview they had with someone sitting in Bartman’s section shortly after the game. He was explaining that EVERYONE was reaching for the ball. And his tone showed that he wasn’t asking for the public to forgive Bartman, but to forgive him also, to forgive the whole crowd. He understood how closely his life came to being ruined by Alou’s theatrics.

    Don’t think I could watch the documentary.

    • Jim Lynch

      I wouldn’t characterize Alou’s reaction as theatrical. He was just pissed off and in the moment. Sure, he may not have caught the ball. But he may well have, too. He had a pretty good glove.

      I thought then as I do now. By saying he likely would not have caught the ball (which he did within a few days), he acted as a gentleman and decent human being. He had done all he could to cool idiot people off, so if Bartman had been found with a spike through his head, his conscience would have at least been clear.

  • klondike

    It is also important to note that 25 years later no actual Red Sox fan alive today holds anything against Buckner. It lives on only in the speech of lazy sports pundits.

    In fact, we started to stop blaming Buckner as soon as Parcells arrived and explained to the astonished masses here, including the flabbergasted sportswriterati, that if your record was 0-4 that you were an 0-4 team, not a 2-2 team with bad luck, or a 3-1 team with a 70-year old curse (the Red Sox). You were just an 0-4 team. Not only that, you were an 0-4 organization, not a 4-0 organization whose players quit, or a 3-1 organization that the league office was conspiring against (Bruins).

    Parcells (for all his very real faults) taught us that the 86 Red Sox (owner, GM, manager … relief pitchers … first basemen) were not as good as the 86 Mets. He also taught us that that was not just the whole story but the only story.

    • efgoldman

      The amazin’ thing is that the Mets could play that well with their noses full of blow.

      • c u n d gulag

        Hey, they were great following the white lines!

      • efgoldman: i got two words for you in that respect.

        lawrence taylor.

      • It kept them awake from all the beer and hookers.

  • wengler

    I thought Gibney did a good job of exposing the media’s role in creating scapegoats. The most interesting part of the documentary was when he interviewed the FOX producer and Steve Lyons who did so much to play up the Bartman flub when it happened, and only later attempted to walk it back when the douchebag brigade as trying to hurt him.

  • As a Red Sox, fan, watching that game 6 in real time, the really baffling managerial (non)decision came in the 8th inning – sox up a run, 2 out, bases loaded, Buckner due up vs. MacDowell, the Mets brought in Orosco – and McNamara did nothing. He had Baylor on the bench, right on left, and Orosco would have to pitch to him – how could he not do that? I looked the game up – it’s worse than I remembered – Orosco had just come in and would have to stay; Baylor was on the bench; you would have thought he planned to bring in Stapleton anyway – and he’d already pinch hit for Clemens in the inning, so the worst case would be you could put your new pitcher in that spot and get 8 batters before you had to pinch hit. (Though looking it up shows me that Baylor never did get in the game – Schiraldi batted for himself in the 10th!) I can’t even imagine what McNamara was up to – I don’t know how you can leave 30 homers on the bench in a game like that, especially when you are given at least two obvious chances to use him….

    Anyway – by the 10th, we were there chanting, “hit it in the air! hit it in the air!” – by the time the Steamer got out there, there wasn’t much hope left… The Buckner play was murder, but even at the time, my buddies and I were screaming at McNamara, not Buckner.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Yep, classic McNamara; who knows if he was even awake at the time. (Bill James: “He’ll platoon a little. If he has a choice between making a decision and platooning, he’ll platoon.”)

  • Bartleby

    Any movie that gives screentime to Dan Shaughnessy is too long.

  • “No, it’s because some guy wanted to finance No, No Nannette during the Harding administration.”

    As Ian Crouch noted over at The New Yorker, that’s the best possible twist on the sale. Basically, the Red Sox owners of that time needed money to stage a play–which then flopped.

    Several years later, that play was turned into a musical: No, No, Nanette.

    Stapleton–and check out Bill James’s 1987 Abstract if you don’t believe me–had a value of 0.00 for the year. Replacing Buckner with him may have changed the result in another way (e.g., not getting to the ball in the first place).

    And the result if the ball isn’t wicketed is still the same: Mookie beats it out for an IF single. Under no condition is a ball hit that slowly, that wide, and that deep getting that half of “the ugliest platoon in baseball history” out.

    The game may not be over over at that point, but the situation isn’t all that much better for the inning.

    Not to mention the small matter of having a 3-0 lead with your best starter on the mound in the following game…

    • efgoldman

      Not to mention the small matter of having a 3-0 lead with your best starter on the mound in the following game…

      Yup. That’s the really important part that a lot of The Nation has blocked out.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Replacing Buckner with him may have changed the result in another way (e.g., not getting to the ball in the first place).

      I don’t understand this; Stapleton couldn’t hit but had better range. Basically, if Buckner could get to it anybody up to and including Frank Thomas could have gotten to it. It’s not obvious to me that Mookie would have beaten it out but in any case Knight doesn’t score if he keeps the ball in front of him.

      • Vin Scully at the time (you can listen to the replay) mentions that in his opinion, no way Buckner makes it to the bag to beat Wilson (Stanley was off in another zip code).

        I agree. Looking at how off-balance Buckner was in bending over to miss the ball while moving, he could not possibly have gotten enough of his footing to get to the bag.

        But yes, Knight probably doesn’t score, altho I would bet Harrelson sends him anyway, so who knows if Buckner would have been able to throw him out.

    • Thlayli

      As long as we’re being pedantic: Harding was elected in the fall of 1920, after Ruth finished his first season in New York.

      • Bill Murray

        but isn’t financing usually lined up in advance of the project?

  • charles pierce

    Scott — As a guy who sat through the entire ’86 season, and caught pneumonia in the auxiliary press box during the last doomed trip to Shea (and while working for a Murdoch paycheck, no less) let me rise to the defense of the Steamer. He came on with a one-run lead. He threw a pitch that Gedman should have caught. (Passed ball, no question.) And then he got a 77-bounce roller up the first-base line that old Calcium Ankles couldn’t field. He did his job. Nobody else did theirs.
    Calvin Schiraldi was made of candyglass, as his complete meltdown in Game 7 would attest a couple of days later. Having watched him all season — including an epic three-out save in Tiger Stadium in which he gave up three flyballs to dead center, not one of which travelled less than 370 feet — I knew there was a real window before his brain turned to Maypo again. I think McNamara figured he’d pressed his luck with the guy enough.
    Also, it is entirely possible that the manager was drunk.

    • it was also schiraldi who had the brutal meltdown in the 9th inning of the 4th game against the angels (and who ultimately lost the game in the 11th), a saturday night affair that left people in despair right up until…

      henderson’s homer the next afternoon.

    • I found a few videos on youtube because I didn’t trust my memory.

      Stanley’s pitch does look catchable. The official scorer’s decision on wild pitch vs. passed ball is not the same as “he had no chance” vs. “he should have caught that.” Gedman never even moved his body.

      On the grounder. I couldn’t find anything definitive, but it didn’t look like Stanley was going to beat Wilson to the bag.

    • I became a Sox fan that season, I watched every minute of that series, and this jibes with ny memory. I blamed Gedman– at least on the TV, he seemed totally asleep on that eminently catchable pitch.

    • Wait. (no, not going there…)

      You think a ball that had Wilson doing the Electric Boogaloo to get out of the way of was a passed ball?

    • Also, Schiraldi began his career with the Mets, and well, we Mets fans hated the SOB. He was a first round pick for us, and in his first cup-o-coffee, gave up five runs in 3.1 innings.

      I think his stats line with the Mets was 2-5, tho that may be inflamed by beer-hazed memories and too many fingernail clippings while waiting for the bum to finish throwing his warm up tosses.

      So we were sort of on his case during the Series…a little.

  • fourmorewars

    Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only person in the world who remembers this:

    One or two nights after the Bartman incident, the Yankees came back to beat the Red Sox. The game I’m thinking about might’ve not been Game 7, I don’t recall, but anyway, in the game in question they rallied in the late innings, at Yankee Stadium. They tied it, I believe, in the 8th. During which, a fan, unbelievably one/two days after Bartman, reached out on a high-bouncing Yankee extra-base hit and touched it, costing them a run. The run would score anyway, and they won the game, but I obviously was flabbergasted that someone would do that in the circumstances.

    Since the Yankees won, this guy, whomever he was, didn’t get to have his life threatened, and semi-ruined like Bartman. Does anyone else even recall this happening?

    • Marek

      Yeah, that sounds right.

  • Steve

    I guess people need to be reminded that the Cubs don’t need a scapegoat. The reason the Cubs can make it to the Series is because they wouldn’t let a REAL GOAT with a ticket take his seat.


  • Richard Hershberger

    “The curses serve the same function as scapegoats, inside sports and without — giving people with power a pass.”

    That is part of it, but the curses also serve to make the accursed fans into tragic heroes, rather than just a bunch of guys rooting for a lousy team. Unfortunately, this is also perilously close to epic whining. Say what you will about Philadelphia fans. (Better yet, say something that isn’t recycled material long past its use-by date.) The Phillies are the losingest team in the history of sport. Their fans, to their credit, have never made a national spectacle of themselves with the sackcloth and ashes routine we see coming out of Chicago and used to see coming out of Boston, before the Red Sox turned into the Yankees Lite.

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